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No limit to what 'new' Royals can achieve – O'Dowd

Bellicose roars spilled down the hill into Navan town yesterday from a stark, old football ground that, of late, seemed to resound only to the groans of the wind.

Meath has never been a place for flame-throwing personalities, but they like their football and maybe 4,000 hardy souls willed the county team up into Division 2 with this hard-earned victory over Fermanagh at an arctic Pairc Tailteann.

For players obliterated in two of their first three league outings, Meath's promotion must rank as an act of escapology to rank with the more extravagant.

They got there with some outside help it should be said, Fermanagh spurning two clear goal-scoring opportunities just after the resumption, Thomas Corrigan then pushing a 43rd-minute penalty close enough to Paddy O'Rourke for the Skryne man to make a splendid save and then, maybe most critically, Declan McCusker getting a straight red after a tussle with Meath captain Kevin Reilly.

Meath, thus, gain promotion to Division 2 with the bonus of a pending divisional final in Croke Park against a Monaghan team that thumped them by 12 points in the opening round of fixtures two months ago.

For manager Mick O'Dowd, this ship is only leaving port.

Asked if, perhaps, local people had been despairing after heavy defeats to Monaghan and Cavan, he responded: "Well, we weren't and that was the main thing.

ethic

"When we played Monaghan, we had only really two months' work done with them. We didn't perform that day, but we didn't throw in the towel either in terms of our work ethic.

"We really just stuck by one another and worked hard.

"It's a kind of a new Meath team really and we're only scratching the surface of what we can achieve and, certainly, what our ambitions are.

"I'd have no limits on what's inside this group.

"We're only beginning our work now with them really, trying to put in a solid, sustainable basis to put Meath back in a good place for the long term. It's going to take time. But we're all committed to it."

The racket in the old stand seemed to suggest the supporters are too. Meath have been Leinster champions just once in the last 12 years and maybe no piece of silverware in GAA history brought more hostility and opprobrium with it.

O'Dowd is looking to build something organically now and it is doubtful a Division 3 bench has ever been stacked with more gunpowder than the one he had at his disposal yesterday.

While he found use for Brian Farrell and Joe Sheridan, there was no job offer on the day to Cian Ward. Suffice to say, Meath aren't short of big-day assassins.

That said, for long periods yesterday, Fermanagh played the more fluent football.

Ryan Jones was a dominant figure around the middle, taking advantage of a gaping height differential to win endless ball over Ciaran Lenihan's head and float two wonderful points on a wind that favoured Fermanagh strongly in the first half.

The Ulster team led 0-7 to 0-3 after 23 minutes with men like Jones, Tommy McElroy, Shane McCabe and Corrigan all looking dangerous in attack.

They might have been even further ahead had O'Rourke not made a brilliant point-blank save from McElroy, but the game suddenly lurched Meath's way in the 28th minute when Marty McGrath floored Peadar Byrne in the small 'square' and the impressive Michael Newman despatched his penalty in off a post.

By now, Brian Meade was tracking Jones on kick-outs and Meath might even have led by half-way but for McCluskey brilliantly diverting a Newman shot over his own crossbar. As it happened, the hosts went in level. And deeply flattered.

McElroy then blazed a 36th-minute goal effort over the Meath crossbar and McCabe inexplicably dropped the ball when he could all but see the whites of O'Rourke's eyes.

Soon after, the Meath 'keeper saved Corrigan's penalty and Peter Canavan could sense a little conviction slip from his team.

"Ultimately, we've paid the price for missing those chances," he reflected.

With the wind in their faces, the sight of McCusker getting his marching orders represented a deeply wounding blow.

But, to Fermanagh's credit, they were just a point behind 11 minutes later when substitute Paddy Gilsenan cleverly fired home Meath's critical second goal.

From that moment, there was no way back for the visitors.

They didn't die, but they didn't quite know how to stay breathing either. Stephen Bray and Gilsenan added two fine points and, when Newman converted a monster free, the roar from the stand must have been heard by the late, great Mattie Gilsenan, for whom there'd been a minute's silence before the start.

"The final was today for us, but it'll be good for some of these lads to now get experience in Croke Park," said O'Dowd.

Canavan sounded disappointed, but hardly downbeat. His team, after all, had fallen just one victory short of a second successive promotion.

"I'm delighted with the way these players conduct themselves," said the former Tyrone great.

"They're very keen to learn and I certainly can't fault their spirit or their character.

"We maybe just lacked a bit of cuteness at times. But it's been a very good league for us, even the two defeats against Meath and Monaghan. This time last year, we wouldn't have given them games."

Man of the match: R Jones (Fermanagh).

SCORERS – Meath: M Newman 1-5 (0-4fs), P Gilsenan 1-1, S Bray 0-3, G Reilly 0-2, E Wallace 0-1. Fermanagh: T Corrigan 0-8 (6fs), R Jones, T McElroy 0-2 each, M McGrath, P Ward (f) 0-1 each.

MEATH – P O'Rourke 8; D Keoghan 7, B Menton 7, C Young 7; C Lenihan 7, K Reilly 7, D Dalton 7; B Meade 7, C Gillespie 7; D Larkin 6, G Reilly 7, P Byrne 7; E Wallace 6, S Bray 8, M Newman 9. Subs: P Gilsenan 8 for Larkin (48), S Curran 7 for Young (53), B Farrell 7 for Wallace (56), J Sheridan 7 for Byrne (60).

FERMANAGH – C Snow 7; J Woods 6, A McGuinness 6, B Cox 6; D McCusker 7, M O'Brien 7, R McCluskey 8; S Lyons 7, M McGrath 7; T McElroy 8, S McCabe 8, R Jones 9; D Kelly 6, T Corrigan 8, P Ward 6. Subs: B Owens 6 for McGrath (59), C Quigley 6 for Kelly (59), D Keenan (not on long enough) for McCluskey (66).

Ref – P O'Sullivan (Kerry).

Irish Independent